Monday, August 24, 2009

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (6)

We frequently produce not-so-clear writing by using bad diction (inaccurate, vague or confusing choices of words). One especially damaging form of bad diction is the misuse of what I call “the uninhabited clause.”

An uninhabited clause is a main clause* with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. In short, an uninhabited clause is a main clause that has no people in it. If you use a lot of uninhabited clauses, you confuse and tire your readers.

An example of the overuse of uninhabited clauses

A textbook example appeared today. In an article headlined “Enough Is Enough,” Robert Foss, a retired government employee, says government imposes excessive penalties for violations of laws and regulations involving driving, drugs and guns.

Mr. Foss cites as an example the Plaxico Burress plea agreement of last Thursday, which involved a two-year prison sentence for a firearms charge.

Mr. Foss presents good arguments for less-stringent regulation and less-severe penalties. But in his closing paragraph, he weakens his article by using uninhabited clauses from beginning to end.

Here is the paragraph:

“The official reaction to gun usage, both legal and illegal, is so predictably severe that one must wonder what the real motives are. Actually, it is not difficult to discern the real motives, which are to disarm the populace and to intimidate us with outrageous responses to any use of guns. This prison sentence is another example of the widespread use of inappropriately lengthy prison sentences for ‘crimes’ that do not deserve such punishment. There appears to be an official attitude that, if we give enough people lengthy jail time, then the ‘correct’ attitudes toward these crimes will be encouraged, and we will have less of those ‘crimes.’ Rather than having that desired result, this attitude of putting people in jail for long periods merely fosters resentment, makes it more difficult for those so sentenced to be productive members of society, and it polarizes the electorate into those ‘for’ and ‘against’ long prison terms for ‘crimes’ that demand more just and equitable treatment. The descent of our culture into one with less liberty and more government intrusion into our lives has resulted in a situation where reasonableness has disappeared when the crime is in one of these three areas. The result is that we have a society full of vengeance rather than one that is full of freedom, common sense, and trust in the citizenry. This ridiculous sentence for Mr. Burress, which was motivated by intimidation rather than a sense of justice, is just the latest example of an officialdom run amok, and it is way past time for Americans to cry out to their elected officials who apply these sentences, ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!”

Here is a summary of the subjects and verbs of the main clauses:

reaction is
to discern is
sentence is
attitude appears
attitude fosters
attitude makes
attitude polarizes
has resulted
result is
sentence is
time is

As you can see, the author has not used one subject that refers to a person or group of persons. This lack of reference to human beings makes the paragraph difficult to read.

And he has used mostly weak verbs (to be and to appear). The heavy use of these verbs makes the paragraph even more difficult to read.

Judge the effect for yourself. Read the article; it consists of four paragraphs. For three paragraphs, it reads mostly smoothly, like driving on an asphalt-paved country road with an occasional pothole or frost heave. Then, when you reach the fourth paragraph (the one quoted above), the pavement ends and you are crunching on gravel or sinking into sand.

Whenever you notice that your reading pace has slowed and the reason is not obvious (for example, the prose is full of jargon or the sentences are very long), the author has probably used too many uninhabited clauses. Check the subjects and verbs and see for yourself.

The Takeaway: Try to put people in most of your main clauses. In other words, try to use subjects that refer to persons or groups of persons, not things or concepts. Also, try not to rely too heavily on weak verbs such as to be, to have, and to appear.

*Also called primary clause, independent clause, and sentence.

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